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Thursday, 30 April 2015

Book Review: The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

If the title of this book sounds baffling, it's nothing compared to the true story it relates. In 1897 a widow called Anna Maria Druce applied for permission to exhume her father-in-law's body. She claimed that Druce, a furniture dealer, had really been the alter-ego of the 5th Duke of Portland, an eccentric man who was reclusive in nature and delighted in tunnelling under his country estate. Mrs Druce claimed that the Duke had faked the death of Druce in 1864 and that the coffin would be found empty. This kicked off one of the most intriguing cases of the late Victorian era which captured the public's imagination and rivals the best tales contemporary novelists had to offer.

Although this is a riveting story to start with, it needs someone of Eatwell's talents to bring the disparate strands together. It may start with Anna Maria Druce but that's far from the end of the case and Eatwell does an excellent job of juggling the various aspects of it. The book is split into three 'acts' - 'Burial', 'Resurrection' and 'Revelation', a partitioning that works well for the most part. For me, the intrigue didn't disintegrate at all throughout the book - while one mystery might be 'solved' there were still things to be explored, creating layers of intrigue that lasted until the final pages.

Eatwell's research is exemplary and she's been fortunate enough to have been granted access to some very interesting things, which she relates towards the end of the book. Equally, her knowledge of the major and minor players in the tale is excellent and she shares just enough relevant information without the narrative becoming swamped. Her ability to recreate the atmosphere of late-Victorian London is also brilliant. This isn't a dry book that simply recounts facts but an engrossing one which attempts to put you in the shoes of the major players. When a writer does this successfully they can bring history to life and Eatwell is one such writer.

Ultimately, this is a thrilling non-fiction book which will appeal to fans of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and other high-quality works of that type. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was sad that the rollercoaster ride of the 'Druce-Portland' case had to end, though not, I'm sure, as sad as some of the protagonists.

A review copy of this book was given to me in exchange for an impartial review.

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